Native American Culture
Rooted firmly next to the water
In the years before dams were built, this was the safest place to cross the mighty Colorado River for hundreds of miles, putting Yuma at the crossroads of history. Explore Yuma’s rich indigenous heritage at a variety of historic sites and museums.
The Quechan tribe of the lower Colorado River lived for generations in harmony with nature. Everything they needed was provided, next to the River’s edge, with abundant waterfowl, fishing, and game to hunt. As farmers, they cultivated the Three Sisters of the southwest, corn, beans, and squash. They harvested many foods from the trees, bushes, and grasses, and had ingenious means of survival in the harsh desert climate. While the population numbers dipped as low as 750 tribal members, today the community has come back to be a small but close tribe, sometimes spelled Kwatsaan. Generational wounds are being healed, and tribal pride is taking hold as efforts to save their language by encouraging children to learn to speak Quechan from the elder members.
The Cocopah, spelled (Kwapa in older documents) were known as the River People, living on the land that spanned territory in Mexico, Arizona and California, along the Colorado River. With as many as 6,000-7,000 Cocopah people until the days of Westward expansion, they resisted assimilation and retained their social, religious and cultural identities. They provided valuable river piloting during the steamboat era because of their knowledge of the river. Now with about 1,000 enrolled tribal members, the tribe strives to keep their ways and language a living culture.
St. Thomas Indian Mission
Picacho Rd., Winterhaven, Calif., 760.572.0283
The present-day church was built in 1922 on the site of the mission founded by Father Garcés in 1780. The church is part of the San Diego diocese; its statues and architecture reflect the padres’ roots of traveling north from Mexico to establish missions in California. It’s not open for tours, call for schedule of masses and other parish activities.
14533 S. Veterans Drive, Somerton, Ariz., 928.627.1992, Cocopah.com/museum.html
With attractive grounds and architecture, this museum tells the story of the tribe through their eyes, with original photographs, clothing, and every-day items before the influence of Spanish or United States citizens impeded much on their way of life. When first encountering Father Kino’s caravan, they generously gifted the hungry travelers with 300 watermelon and many beef cattle. They were known as skilled warriors and active traders with the Pima to the east and the Kumeyaay peoples of the Pacific Coast.
Fort Yuma historic marker and Quechan Museum
Quechan Dr., Winterhaven., Calif.
The site was first called Camp Calhoun and was used as a U.S. Military Post in 1849. A fire destroyed the original buildings. By 1855 the barracks had been rebuilt. Called Camp Yuma in 1852 it became Fort Yuma after reconstruction. Transferred to the Department of the Interior and the Quechan Indian Tribe in 1884, it became a boarding school operated by the Catholic Church until 1900. The marker was erected in 1989 by the the State Department of Parks and Recreation in cooperation with the Quechan Tribe and E Clampus Vitus, a fraternal organization dedicated to preserving the history of the American West.